literature review step one, scoping. #acwrimo work in progress

One of the things that we all have to do when starting a piece of research is to find out what else has been said about our topic. This is usually called the literature review, although I prefer to think of it as a three-part exercise of scoping, mapping and focusing in on the literatures. People have asked me at various times if I’ll show and tell how I do literature work, and so I’m going to do four blog posts about how I did a very particular piece of literatures work for the paper I am writing with Thesis Whisperer.

Now, what gets counted as ‘literatures’ can be as narrow or as broad as you want, and so it’s important to start by thinking about exactly WHERE you are going to look, as well as for WHAT. In the case of texts that other people have written about blogging, there are at least three types of literatures that are going to be important – refereed journals and conference papers, blogs and other web based material, and books. I decided to start my search with peer reviewed journal articles.

I do start work with literatures with a positive attitude. I actually enjoy engaging with texts, and maybe that’s because I think of them as just another data set to be sorted and categorized. It’s an intellectual challenge to take an unruly mountain of ‘stuff’ and sort it neatly into manageable chunks – and I do take a perverse pleasure in this kind of making-tidy-work.

Sorting and categorizing has always got arbitrary elements. The way that I categorize something won’t be the same as someone else, so the health warning on reading my literatures notes is just that – this is mine, no-one else’s, not even my co–author Thesis Whisperer.

So to this specific task. I first of all wanted to know just what was out there. HOW MUCH WAS WRITTEN ABOUT BLOGGING AND WHERE WAS IT? WHO WAS ACTUALLY WRITING IN JOURNALS ABOUT BLOGS AND WHY? It’s important to note that I approached the first task of scoping with some defined questions. These didn’t stop me noticing other things, but having these questions in mind meant that I wasn’t going on a random scramble through articles; I was looking for answers.

I began my search by going to three major journal publishers’ sites. There are many more than this, but I decided that I would go to a subset first of all; these were the three where I was pretty sure I’d find something. My choices were Taylor and Francis, Wiley Blackwell and Sage. I did also look at Elsevier but their initial search engine wasn’t as ‘advanced’ as the other three and wouldn’t do what I wanted so I left it be.

I first of all went to Sage to experiment with search terms. I played with ‘blog’ and ‘social media’ and various fields, producing this result:

Sage journals 3064 = blog in all fields, 14 in title, 28 in key words, 87 in abstract.
2277 with social media in abstract, social media plus learning 98, social media academic = 86

In the next two journal sites I made a decision about which way to go – I searched the word BLOG in the abstract field. I reasoned that if ‘the blog’ was somehow central to the research then it would appear there.

I searched from my home machine, not one at university so I am not sure about any ‘filter bubble’ effect in searching. I do know that when I searched one of these sites again a week later from my work desktop using exactly the same criteria, I got more results than I had at home. However, I went with the first search on the basis that what I wanted wasn’t something exact, but some beginning early data that was indicative.

This is what I found in the other two searches:

Wiley Blackwell 193 articles with blog in abstract field
Taylor and Francis blog in 217 abstracts

I next imported all of the ‘BLOG in abstract’ details from the three sites into Mendeley. This meant I had abstracts as well as title, author and key words. I then read all of the abstracts and got rid of the ones where it seemed that ‘blog’ was not central to the research or the argument. This left me with just under 300 papers.

Now, Mendeley online has a very nice feature. You can basically cut and paste the list of journals in which the abstracts appear into a word document. I did that and then sorted the journals into rough disciplinary categories. As a result of this first sort, I had a bit of an idea about the disciplines in which there were a number of journals publishing research about blogs. What I could say on the basis of this categorization was something like this:

A search of three peer reviewed commercial journal sites, using the search term ‘blog’ in the ‘abstract’ field, showed a spread of publication outlets for papers on blogging. The largest numbers of journals were in culture, media, education, communication, computing, health, and in associated areas like youth studies and journalism. A lesser number of journals appeared in sociology, politics and humanities. Missing from the list entirely were philosophy, archeology, theology and most of the sciences.

Well, that count was marginally interesting. But of course the number of journals is not the same as the number of actual articles. So here is the other nice feature of Mendeley online. When you click on a journal title, you can then see how many articles have been published in that journal. So I could count the number of articles in each of the journals pretty easily. By putting this information together with the categorization of journals into disciplinary categories I was able to say this:

When actual articles were counted, the top three areas (bearing in mind that the classification of these journals was mine and therefore not necessarily the same as someone else’s classification) the following emerged as ‘top’ of the leader board: cultural studies and media studies (42, with journalism an additional 16); computing /ict (41); communication, linguistics and discourse (37); education (27); library studies and health (both on 24); business (6) and tourism (13); sociology (10); humanities (9). All others were under 5, including politics a surprising 4. However there is politics content in other disciplinary areas, particularly communication and journalism.

Well it’s not a surprising list really, is it? Hardly new news to know that people interested in – cultural shifts, what young people do, how to improve teaching, how people find out where to go on holiday, how new forms of digital communication work – might study blogs. And not surprising to consider the absences and to think that perhaps at least some of the missing disciplines might actually be too busy USING blogs to do their disciplinary work – e.g. digital humanities – to actually stop what they are doing long enough to write a journal article out of their primary research area. Or that they might be publishing blogs about blogging. But I now have some confidence about who is systematically researching blogs AND writing for peer review about that research.

So that’s what scoping does. Hardly enough to count as literatures work yet, neverthless a start. But – and this is important – the other thing that working with the set of abstracts did was to allow me to see what articles might be relevant for the paper that Thesis Whisperer and I are writing. I also decided to do a bit more searching online and get onto the three or four books I’d identified.

And I’ll report on that in stage two, post two.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic blogging, disciplines, journal, literature review, scoping, search and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to literature review step one, scoping. #acwrimo work in progress

  1. Pingback: literature review step one, scoping. #acwrimo work in progress | AcWriMo |

  2. Amanda Wilson says:

    Interesting post, I have undertaken a few literature reviews and find the quality of the databases to search does vary greatly (from ones that will search all of your terms to ones that you have to break the term down into one or two words then cross reference the results).. What however I was not aware of was the “filter bubble” though most of my searching was done in university, still it is an interesting thought.


  3. Thank you. I plan to pass this to a colleague who renamed her review a scoping review and had difficulty understanding why I disagreed. This will help her to grasp the difference aspects of lit review work. Looking forward to the next entry.


    • pat thomson says:

      I think scoping is used in a range of ways. The UK AHRC recently had a set of literature scoping studies and there the notion of scoping was in relation to scoping for a research study by doing a literature review.So we did a scoping literature review which scoped as its first step. Confusing eh!


  4. 5k1nn3r says:

    I’m new to research and I am wondering, do you need some sort of log in to get this information or can you extract the abstracts without paying for membership?


  5. Hi Pat, I’m justing starting on my literature review and your post was almost magically timed. Thank you for this excellent way to start.


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